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Sunday, November 28, 2021

UC Davis hires new College of Letters and Science dean

World-renowned geophysicist Dr. Estella Atekwana will join UC Davis in August 

Estella Atekwana, a geophysicist and the dean of the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of Delaware, will become UC Davis’ new dean of the College of Letters and Science effective Aug. 1, 2021. 

Before becoming a professor, she received her Ph.D. from Dalhousie University as well as her Master’s and an undergraduate degree from Howard University in Geology/Earth Science. 

Ari Kelman, the interim dean of the College of Letters and Science since March 2020, said Atekwana has a remarkable record as a leader in higher education. 

“At every stop along her career, she has earned the respect of faculty, staff, students and alumni,” Kelman said.

The College of Letters and Science is UC Davis’ largest college, encompassing 55 undergraduate majors from comparative literature to statistics.

Atekwana said in an email sent to students in the college that she knew immediately that UC Davis was where she wanted to be, adding that she felt “inspired” to be part of the university’s growing success.

Beitong Li, a fourth-year triple major in economics, statistics and linguistics, has been a Letters and Science Ambassador for the past two years. 

“I believe it’s great to have a new dean because it means things will change a little bit,” Li said. 

Atekwana’s research background is in geology, and her research includes studies of the Albertine Rift, an extremely biodiverse area in central Africa created by the Earth’s tectonic plates pulling away from each other. 

“Dr. Atekwana is a world-class scholar who understands both the potential for world-changing research and also the extraordinary demands on researchers in a variety of fields,” Kelman said.

She has received awards both nationally and internationally for her work from organizations including the American Geophysical Union, the Geochemical Society and National Association of Black Geoscientists.

“Davis is a tier one research university, that sets us apart from other universities which might have a different focus, so I say it’s amazing,” Li said. “She cares about it because it’s a part of her background or identity—obviously that’s a great thing.”

As a dean at the University of Delaware, Atekwana created a fellowship to support historically underrepresented graduate students and created a 10-year strategic plan for the university, entitled The Changing Earth: Working Together for a Sustainable Future.

Kabir Sahni, a third-year communications and international relations double major, served on the recruitment advisory committee for the new dean. 

“One of the biggest things for me I wanted to see within the College of Letters and Science was someone in leadership that represents a large part of the school,” Sahni said. “I wanted to see diversity and inclusion programs implemented within the college.” 

Atekwana has been working in academia for the last 30 years at the University of Delaware, Oklahoma State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology and Western Michigan University. 

“I think her own experience in the laboratory and the classroom informs her interactions with faculty and students in ways that are likely to be inspiring and transformative for the L&S community,” Kelman said.

Sahni said that though Atekwana’s accomplishments as a geologist are impressive, a dean’s most important quality, for him, is a strong understanding of the student experience.

“I think the end goal is to realize that at one point, [a dean was] a graduate assistant and then a professor,” Sahni said. “So they know the kind of spaces that we would be ascending and where we are trying to go.” 

Written by: Kathleen Quinn — campus@theaggie.org

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